Opponents of a federal program to mandate paid family leave for American workers often say it should be up to employers to decide. A new analysis, however, shows that pinning our hopes on the private sector for paid family leave means that it will be a long, long time before the average worker has any hope of accessing the benefit.
Vicki Shabo, the senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy for the Better Life Lab at New America, crunched the data released recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on workers’ access to paid family leave as an employer-provided benefit. She found both good news and bad for paid leave advocates.
First, the good news: The share of private sector workers with access to paid family leave has doubled over the last decade, from 10 to 20 percent. The bad news: If expansion continues at that same rate, absent any government intervention, it will take 80 years for the average worker to have paid family leave—and much longer than that for the benefit to reach everyone.
“The change in workers’ paid leave access over the past decade reinforces an undeniable truth: employers are not going to ensure paid family leave to all workers on their own. We need a federal policy to guarantee baseline access and create a sustainable and inclusive way to do so, similar to state paid family and medical leave programs,” Shabo told Working Mother.
Part of the problem is the benefit has been unevenly distributed—another sign of growing inequality between high-income and low-income workers in America. According to the BLS data, 38 percent of workers in the highest decile of earners (paid an average of $49.04 per hour or more) have paid family leave, whereas just 5 percent in the lowest decile (paid less than $11 per hour) do.
“Access has grown 20 percentage points among the highest wage workers, whereas it has grown by just 2 percentage points among the lowest-wage workers,” Shabo says in a Medium post detailing her analysis.
There are also gaps by industry. Nearly half (47 percent) of workers in “information,” which includes a broad swath of people in publishing, television, telecommunications, data and more, have access to paid family leave. Meanwhile, only 9 percent of workers in the leisure and hospitality field can say the same.
These gaps are both a sign of inequality and a driver of it, experts say. In a blog post for the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, sociologist Ruth Milkman, Ph.D., notes that even within the same companies, women in managerial and professional jobs are more likely to have access to paid family leave than hourly workers, who often leave the workforce when they have children or a family member falls ill, which “aggravates the growing problem of inequality in income and wealth,” she says.
To be clear, many women do have access to some type of paid leave after giving birth, most commonly through employer-provided short-term disability insurance, but Shabo notes that growth in that market has been sluggish. “Just over four in 10 workers (42 percent) have access to short-term disability insurance through their employer, an increase in just 3 percentage points since 2010,” she writes.
For Shabo, the way forward is legislation similar to the FAMILY Act, which would provide up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for nearly all workers to care for a new child, a loved one with a serious health issue or their own serious health condition.
“Skeptics often say a federal paid family and medical leave program would be expensive, but the reality is that the costs of federal inaction are being borne every day,” she says. “These are direct costs to workers and families who lose income when workers take an unpaid leave to provide or receive care, or—worse—lose their jobs. There are direct costs in terms of lost earning potential over time and lost retirement savings. There are also direct costs to businesses in terms of employee turnover and productivity losses. There are direct costs to the health care system that accrue from conditions going untreated and people being re-hospitalized. And there are costs to the economy and public revenues in terms of reduced labor force participation, which means a lower tax base.”
As for the chances of a program like the FAMILY Act being passed, Shabo says she’s optimistic. “I think pressure is building from both traditional paid leave advocates and from one-time opponents for the federal government to act.”
Otherwise, mark your calendar for 2100, when your great grandkids might get paid family leave.